Lent 2 — Romans 3.19-24
This is a while ago now—
I’d made a promise to Ali to take steps to save money. We’d talked about cutting costs, stopping the silly spending, and making an effort to be thrifty.
“Are you on board?” she’d asked me.
With this tongue, yours truly— a pastor, this professional Christian— said “I do.”
As part of our mutual cost-cutting vow, Ali and I made the decision to liberate ourselves from the People’s Republic of Verizon.
We decided to cut the cord and get rid of our cable so that, we would get zero channels on our television. Between Netflix and Tom Brady going to the Super Bowl every year what difference television does it make?
You can imagine how popular our decision was with our children (not).
Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our FIOS receiver in its box and shipped it back to Weimar Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision.
For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the People’s Republic of Verizon’s bill— I mean, do they think we live in aiport terminals with inflated prices like that?
For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want. We didn’t want them inundated with promise after promise after promise that this or that could solve all their problems.
Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband—me—is a complete sucker for informercials.
A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark. And it’s true.
Make me a promise about giving me the power to unlock the better me inside me and I’m all yours faster than you can say shipping and handling not included.
If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words “set it and forget it” fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens at one time.
If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine.
If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never “that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.”
No, my first thought was always “that looks like something I need. That will solve all my problems.”
So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition. There are advertisements and advice and promised solutions everywhere.
A couple of years ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish.
At that point, having cut the cord, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section?
Uh huh, a product demonstration.
And— truth be told— I thought about my promise to Ali. And I’d meant it, I’d really meant it.
The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s.
For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which, let’s just say, got me to thinking of myself as Brad Pritt in some extended, unrated director’s cut scenes
“Hey, let’s stick around and watch this” I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment.
In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call.
The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix.
Have you seen one? Do you own one?
If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is the blender-equivalent of that new yacht recently purchased by Dan Synder.
Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick:
“The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems.
With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.”
And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: “Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.”
No, I was thinking…
“This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.”
I looked to my side. Gabriel was transfixed too.
The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: “Who enjoys pesto?”
And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘“I do. I am Italian after all.”
And she smiled at me— only at at me— and she said: “I’ve always had a thing for Italians.”
“I went to Princeton,” I blurted out like we were speed-dating and the clock was about to sound.
“Can you cook?” she asked me. And I nodded my head, like Fonzi, too cool for words.
“Even better” she purred.
And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew now she only cared about me.
“Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.”
And all of us men, like mosquitos headed stubbornly towards the light that will be their demise, we nodded like Stepford Husbands.
“But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem worthy of declaring a national emergency) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?”
And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience.
Hypnotized, I said: “No, they won’t do” even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem.
She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or a Carl’s Jr commercial, and and then she said in her come-hither voice:
“I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.”
I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon.
It was like I couldn’t help myself— like I was bound and determined to do the one thing I wanted not to do.
This fall Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage in Cupertino to hawk the latest generation of Apple’s wearable technology.
The series 4 Apple Watch was itself not really new or a noticeable upgrade over its precessors.
What was new, what was distinct, was its promise in the sales pitch:
“It’s all new. For a better you.”
The unveiling commercial at the showcase continued with the promise:
“There is a better you in you.”
There’s a better you in you and with this product you will have the freedom and power to unlock it.
The new Apple Watch is but an overt example of the same promise pitched to us three-thousand times a day.
St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike.
Therefore, we’re hardwired to want to do and improve.
You’re hard-wired to want to be a better you and to build a better world.
Because the Law is written on your heart, you’re hard-wired to be a sucker for the promise of progress.
You’re hard-wired by the Law on the your heart to be a sucker for the promise of a better you inside you.
And so it’s not surprising that is the very same promise dangled in front of us three-thousand times a day. From our TV screens to our Facebook feeds, from our watches to our smartphone notifications, you and I are exposed to over three-thousand advertisements a day.
Three-thousand per day.
Every last single one of them relies upon the Law written on your heart.
Three-thousand times a day— the same simple, seductive formula. They identify a problem— maybe a problem you didn’t know you had until they told you you had that problem. Then they make you a promise: With this product, you can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems) and unlock the better you inside you.
Three-thousand times a day we’re promised what the Law on our hearts deceives us to believe.
There’s a better you in you.
What’s my point?
There’s a better you inside of you— very often, it’s the pitch Christians make too.
Just invite Jesus into your heart, and you’ll unlock the happier you inside of you.Your marriage will be healed. Your kids will stay the straight and narrow. You’ll feel fulfilled.
Worship, pray, serve, give— and you can unlock the Jesus-version of you inside of you, the you who’s patient and kind and utters nary an angry word.
With just three easy installments of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, you’ll live like Jesus, turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy-times-seven, you’ll never commit adultery in your heart and the log in your eye— shazaam, never to return.
Not only has my Apple Watch not liberated the better me inside me, it can’t even reliably distinguish between me sitting down and me standing up.
It failed to wake me up on time this morning, and whenever I ask Siri to play Ryan Adams music (which I won’t be doing anymore) it always plays Summer of ‘69 instead.
Likewise, what the Church often promises about faith being the key to unlock the better you inside you— to the buyer beware.
Here’s the lie behind all those promises we’re pitched.
Here’s the lie the Law, written on our hearts, deceives us to believe.
Here’s the lie— the you inside you is not better.
In fact, as Jesus teaches again and again, the problem out there in the world is what comes from inside of you.
The answer to what’s wrong in the world… is you, Jesus says.
As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “…there is no health in us.”
That’s why, St. Paul tells us today, our justification comes completely by Grace, entirely apart from the Law— because we have nothing to contribute to our salvation save our sin.
The you inside you is not better.
You’re not basically a good person who just requires a little bit of help from your friend Jesus so that you can unlock the better you inside you and live your best life now— no, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism and, though it’s the most popular religion in America, it’s a lie.
The you inside you is not better.
The you inside you is bound.
The you inside you is bound.
We forget— God’s grace, God’s One-Way Love, reveals not just the character of the Giver but the condition of the Receiver.
The medicine should indicate the disease; the prescription should betray the diagnosis. You don’t require some advice or a nudge in the right direction; you require a savior.
That you require the liberating, unilateral, one-way love called Grace should tell you something about your predicament.
As Paul Zahl says, the New Testament’s High Christology— it’s view of who Christ is and what Christ has done— comes with a correlative Low Anthropology— a dim view of who we are by nature and the good we’re capable of doing.
Paul announces the invasion (that’s the word Paul uses in Greek, apokalyptetai) of God’s grace in Jesus Christ without a single “if” here in chapter three.
For almost three chapters, Paul’s been raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our sins, implicating each and every one of us.
The first three chapters of Romans— it sounds like Paul’s whipping you up for an altar call until what you anticipate next from Paul is the word if.
If you turn away from your sin…
If you turn towards God…
If you repent…
If you plead for God’s mercy…
If you believe THEN God will justify you.
No— there’s no ifs there’s just this great big but, what Karl Barth says is the hinge of the Gospel, the turning of the ages: “But now, apart from the Law, apart from Religion, apart from anything we do, the righteousness of God has been revealed…”
The grace of God has invaded our world without a single if, without a single condition demanded of you, without a single expectation for your cooperation.
Because, Paul’s already told you, you’re not capable of cooperating with a single one of those conditions.
As Paul told us at the top of his argument in verse nine: All of us are under the Power of Sin. And the language the apostle uses there is the language of exodus. All of us are in bondage, Paul says, under the dominion— the lordship— of a Pharaoh called Sin.
This is a Power from whom we’re never totally free this side of the grave.
Don’t forget the Paul who celebrates the baptized walking in newness of life just after today’s text is the same Paul who laments (just after that) how the converted heart remains a heart divided against itself; such that, we all do what we do not want to do and we do not do what we want to do.
There is no health in us.
Here’s the dark but necessary underside to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love called Grace. And, brace yourselves, in our American culture with its high, optimistic anthropology, this is going to feel like a micro-aggression, so here it comes:
You are not free.
I’m going to say it again because I know you don’t believe it: You are not free.
You are not free.
Your neighbor is not free. Your mother-in-law is not free. Your co-worker is not free. Your boss is not free. Your son? Your daughter? You might already suspect as much, neither is free. Your spouse— hell, every married person already knows this is true— is not free.
Christianly-speaking, free will is a fantasy.
Free will is a fiction.
And that’s an assertion upon which traditional Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, concur. Christianly-speaking, your will is not free.
Your will is bound.
All those promises we’re sold three-thousand times a day— they’re pitched to prisonsers not to free people (that’s exactly why they work on us!).
I realize this is the most un-American thing I could say but to speak the language of free will is not to speak Christian. Your will is not free.
It’s right there in Romans, the book of the Bible that the Church Fathers put in the middle of your New Testament so that you would know its importance for our faith.
Your will is not free. Your will is bound, doing the evil you want not to do and not doing the good you want to do.
You will is not free. Your will is torn, between a Pharaoh called Sin and a Lord named Jesus Christ; such that, all of us who’ve been rescued by grace are like the Israelites in the wilderness.
God has gotten us out of Egypt but we’ve still got Egypt in us.
The shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love is your bound, unfree will.
Now don’t get your panties in a bunch, this doesn’t mean you’re a robot. It doesn’t mean that every moment of your life is pre-determined— the only thing predetermined in life is UVA Basketball’s disappointing play in March.
It doesn’t mean you had no choice this morning between sausage or bacon, jeans or khakis. No, when Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it means that your will is not free to choose (reliably) that which is good.
When Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it teaches that no one— because of our bondage to sin—by sheer force of will can reliably choose the right thing, which is God, for the right reason, which is selfless love.
You might choose the good and godly thing, for example, but do you do so for the right reasons? And are those reasons even always evident to you?
Our love compass is off—that’s what the Church means by the boundedness of your will.
As John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it in Article X of the 39 Articles: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and God.”
And if all of this sounds like so much theological hocus-pocus to you, consider that Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at UVA, writes that most of us only make free, rational decisions about 13% of time— a statistic that Pat Vaughn’s wife, Margaret, corroborates.
Most of the time, Timothy Wilson argues, we’re exactly what St. Paul says we are.
We’re strangers to ourselves.
Our wills follow our hearts and our reason tags along behind.
I drove that Vitamix home from Whole Foods, and I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave.
And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because, as my wife pointed out, I already had a blender and a food processor.
“Who convinced you to buy such ridiculous thing?” she asked me, and I quickly covered Gabriel’s mouth with my hand.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I couldn’t help myself.”
And she smiled and shook her head at unfree me.
“I know you couldn’t” she said, “I forgive you. Now go return it.”
For over six months now I’ve been preaching God’s grace to you, Sunday after Sunday. And some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to get around to giving you some advice. Some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to tell you what to do.
And just so you know— I’ll stop preaching God’s grace just as soon as you actually start believing it.
I’m not going to stop preaching to you God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean God’s grace isn’t practical for everyday life.
It is practical for everyday life because everyday everywhere you go everyone you meet has a bound, unfree will.
So here’s some advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the Gospel. Your bound, unfree will is the necessary, shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One Way Love, but it is not bad news.
It is the birth pangs of compassion.
The moment you understand the Gospel’s implication that people are not as free as they think they are, you’re able to have compassion and tenderness for them. Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you can find sympathy for them.
What the Gospel teaches us about the bound will is the grace-based way to mercy.
It’s when you mistakenly think people are free, unbound, active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the terrible damaging decisions they make, that you get angry and impatient with them.
It’s then that you judge them.
And it’s then that you begin to confuse what they do for who they are.
Just because Grace is a message about what God has done doesn’t mean it has no practical implications for what we do.
Grace means we look at each other with the Savior’s eyes.
Grace means we look upon each other as fellow captives.
As those who never advance very far beyond needing Jesus’ final prayer: “Father forgive them, they still know not what they do.”